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Let it Flow

posted on October 2nd 2018 in Headmaster's Blog

Noel Coward once observed that ‘work is more fun than what most people call fun’. I am not sure I would have agreed with him when I was twenty-five, but now I am closing in on fifty I can definitely see his point.

No job is fun all the time, otherwise someone would come along and do it for free. However, many of us are lucky enough to have jobs that, whilst they have their moments of boredom, frustration or stress, are largely absorbing and enjoyable.

What makes a job fun? There is no simple answer to this question, as it very much depends on the tastes and talents of the individual, but it is undeniably true that finding happiness at work can be almost as much about how you work as it is about the work you happen to be doing.

In 1990 the eminent Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi published his seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, a book that I would strongly recommend to any teacher and, indeed, to anyone interested in the concept of human happiness. Csikszentmihalyi’s basic thesis is that people are at their happiest when they are in a state of what he calls ‘flow’ – which is total immersion in an activity for its own sake. This state of flow is often described as being ‘in the zone’ and is particularly associated with sporting or artistic endeavour. However, the potential for flow is not confined to any particular type of activity. It can be achieved through sport, art, music, writing, performing, debating, building and almost any activity that demands a reasonable level of concentration. At its most complete, the state of flow is essentially a spiritual state, as it involves a complete separation from the normal experience of space, time and the self. It is precisely this transcendence of the normal conditions of consciousness that makes flow a gateway to profound happiness.

At Amherst I have been talking about the concept of flow with the pupils in assembly. It is a major feature of our Minerva philosophy, is strongly linked to the concept of growth mindset, and is the unifying theme of our lectures from visiting scientists this week. The aim of introducing our pupils to the concept of flow is not merely to help them improve their academic performance. More important than this is to help them to understand how work, if approached in the right way, can be a source of profound happiness and even a kind of spiritual fulfilment. When talking with the pupils about flow, I emphasize two points in particular.

The first point is that the ingredients for achieving flow, regardless of the subject you are studying, are very actually very simple. All you need is the following:

  • A very clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve and solid guidance on how to get there
  • A level of challenge just above your current level of ability
  • A willingness to persevere and to meet with a certain level of trial and error in your task
  • An ability to forget any extrinsic reasons why you may be performing the task (e.g. for a grade or exam result) and focus instead on the intrinsic experience of the task itself

The first two elements come from the teacher and the third and fourth have to come from the pupil (but, of course, the school has to provide the environment that can nurture these responses in its pupils). Only if all four are present can you achieve flow. In essence, these four elements of flow represent both the ‘holy grail’ and the sine qua non of true education.

The second point is that flow is habit forming. The more you achieve it, the more habitual it becomes. I was reminded of this fact recently when watching Celebrity Masterchef and being struck by the frequency with which top athletes often do so well on the programme. Their impressive progress from a baseline of often quite basic cookery skills is down to a habitual mindset that is used to intense immersion in a task and to coping productively with the inevitable experience of failure. More than anything, it is the habit-forming character of flow that makes it such an important educational concept.

A note of caution, it is vital to distinguish flow from the kind of immersion produced by video games, social media, or obsessive thought and behaviour patterns. To borrow loosely from psychological jargon, these types of immersion can be described as ‘hyperfocus.’ Flow and hyperfocus are, to quote T. S Elliot, ‘conditions which often look alike, yet differ completely’. In fact, hyperfocus can be viewed as the satanic shadow of flow. So, how can you distinguish flow from hyperfocus? The answer is that they can be distinguished both by their results and their accessibility. Flow tends to promote a virtuous circle of energy, curiosity and confidence. Hyperfocus creates a vicious circle of addiction, self-absorption and irritation. More tellingly, flow is not an easy state to reach, but hyperfocus is all too easy to achieve.

I have written before about the dangers of our increasing immersion in the virtual world of information technology. One of the greatest dangers is that it is creating an entire environment that promotes hyperfocus and thereby makes flow harder to achieve or, in more extreme cases, to even conceive. It is no coincidence that, in recent years, meditation has become a feature of the provision in so many schools. It represents a desperate if unconscious rearguard action against the forces of mental unquiet that threaten us. Unfortunately, in an educational world that continues to embrace frenetic ‘pupil-centered’ activity and the use of technology to make learning more ‘relevant’ (whatever that means), bolting some meditation on the curriculum is about as much use as placing a sticking plaster over a severed limb. What is instead required is a shared understanding on the part of educators, pupils and parents that the four prerequisites of flow are also the four non-negotiable features of any successful classroom.